Historic East Bay women's college Mills, which was founded in 1852, is ending its run as a degree-granting institution and won't be taking on any new students after this fall.
It's been a difficult few years for Mills College financially, and the pandemic appears to have put the nail in the coffin. The school announced Wednesday that it expects to confer its last degrees in 2023, pending a final decision by its board of trustees, and there is a vague plan to transform the campus into an institute. The ultimate institute, according to a press release, will "foster women’s leadership and student success, advance gender and racial equity, and cultivate innovative pedagogy, research, and critical thinking," making sure that the college's "mission will endure."
New students in the classes of 2024 and 2025 will apparently be expected to transfer to complete their degrees, though the details remain unclear.
"Our goal is to deliver an exceptional academic and co-curricular experience to our students for at least the next two academic years, with Mills faculty and staff at the heart of that experience," said Mills President Elizabeth L. Hillman in today's announcement.
Mills has been in a state of financial emergency with dwindling enrollment since at least 2017, when there was a debate among the trustees — followed by dramatic protest by undergraduates — to begin admitting men and and end the school's 165-year history as a women's institution. A few months before the pandemic began, we learned that the school was selling off two valuable assets from its collections — a rare Shakespeare folio and an original Mozart score — in order to help pay some bills. The copy of the First Folio ended up exceeding estimates and garnering just under $10 million at auction, but obviously the school's troubles exceeded that sum.
The school's annual budget deficit was said to be $9 million four years ago, at which time the trustees voted to lay off five tenured faculty members. Also at that time, the school entered into a collaborative partnership with UC Berkeley, allowing students to cross-enroll. The Chronicle suggests that the partnership may have been a first step toward getting Mills acquired by the University of California, but that has not been in the cards.
As the East Bay Times reports, the school was operating with a $3 million deficit on a $50 million budget, and school . An effort to attract more students in the 2018-2019 academic year by slashing the price of tuition — from $44,765 to $28,765 per year — failed to attract enough new students.
The fate of Mills comes at a time of financial woe for another historic academic institution in the Bay, the San Francisco Art Institute. SFAI very nearly closed last spring, but is hobbling along with also low enrollment.
In addition to enrolling 707 undergraduate students at last count — a large number of them continuing education students over the age of 23 — Mills is home to several prestigious graduate programs, particularly in music and visual art, with around 400 graduate students. The school received high marks in college-ranking lists for its very liberal and diverse student body, and extremely LGBTQ-friendly campus, in addition to strong academics among liberal arts colleges in the West.
It remains unclear what, if any, of its departments or programs will continue to be a part of the eventual Mills Institute.
BART Director Lateefah Simon tells the East Bay Times, "I found my deep purpose at Mills for education and for public policy." She said the school was especially welcome to her as a single mother whose education was sometimes interrupted. "Mills is a majestic place: made up the space itself and the people,” she says, adding that it's an institution uniquely focused "on justice, equity, inclusion and feminist power."
Photo courtesy of Mills College